Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Einstein and IELTS

So its not been a great day today, still recovering from my CFS hangover after attempting to be social on Saturday night. Day two on twitter and I gave the UEL VC some tourist tips on visiting Malaysia so I'm counting that as a success.... But its got to past five o'clock and I need some distraction so I'm drawn to the wonder of TED, and today I fell upon Patricia Ryan's - Don't insist on English.

Wherever I've travelled in the world I've found speakers of English - whether it be western China, the hinterland of Kazakhstan or a taxi driver in Madrid. And as an often solo traveller finding an English speaker, particularly when I'm jet lagged and desperately trying to find my hotel in a strange city, I find a wave of relief often washes over me. Somehow, some way I will be understood. Then when the jet lag wears off, and I start the process of acclimatisation, a subsequent wave washes over me - tinged with a bit of shame and sadness that I am still, pretty much monolingual.

A little bit of French lingers from school, and I am still persevering with my Mandarin studies, but basically I am still a monoglot - like most of us who have English as our first language. Patricia Ryan's TEDtalk wasn't so much about how terrible the lingua franca of English is, but the benefits and value of language diversity.

As hard as it is to find the time at the moment, I have really enjoyed getting to know an entirely different language system in Mandarin. It's a very rich language, by building its words out of individual characters and sounds it can be very flexible in its standard vocabulary, perhaps even more flexible that our immensely wordy English. We may have grandfather and grandfather, they have distinct words for mother's father, mother's mother, father's mother and father's mother. There are also specific words for older sister and younger sister. I also love the compound words for everyday things - 'baoguo' money bag for wallet.

So what do we lose when we make English almost the only language for science and higher education? Do we stifle creativity by forcing our research and thoughts into a single set of signifiers? Why do our 'internationalised' universities still placed such little value on learning different languages (come on we all know its mainly 'lip service'? Maybe we should make more effort to interact with our partners and colleagues around the world in their languages, rather than teaching and publishing almost exclusively in English and only recognising what has been published in English language media. It doesn't mean we all have to be fluent, we are increasingly moving towards a situation where the 'universal translator' of Star Trek fame may become a reality - so why should we continue to get trapped by our English?


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